I’m not one for making New Year resolutions but it seems a good enough time of year to start a new research project. So why the heck not? I find new projects exciting. I like the prospect of the process – rooting around for relevant and tangential information, finding or failing to find it and then trying to make sense of it – more than I like the prospect of an answer. All that means is that I don’t find new research, in all its unformed state, intimidating but I understand that some do and that’s why the initial line of questioning is important to keep the proverbial train on the tracks. A good starting question – and by good I mean productive – is one that opens the door to all possible answers. A good question doesn’t limit the inquiry but it also doesn’t get you lost in it. Getting lost is why research can be intimidating. There’s so much literature, so many questions raised from questions that they can lead you far away from your initial interest. That’s why it’s more productive and thus easier to pick research questions with some care.
In the past, I’ve mostly begun with a question and then find information that addresses it. I’ve experienced this approach when asked to write a school or university paper. The teacher gave us a question or a theme and our tasks as the students is to answer it with supporting information. This approach is common at all levels of education. For example, a research question can look like this: what is the impact of X on Y? This one is pretty common because it can be applied to a range of topics including health, economics or psychology but it isn’t necessarily a good one to start off. Why? At its core, it assumes there is a relationship between X and Y. Now, if that relationship’s already been established elsewhere, then this is a legit place to start. However, if it hasn’t, then the adage about assuming making an a** out of you and me applies here and someone’s in danger of being the a**.
So what do I do to avoid this research gaffe? The simplest and easiest way is to keep my questions general, at least during the initial stage. Why is this a big deal? I might miss something important if I get too specific too soon. Instead of asking about the impact of X on Y, first ask if there is a relationship between the two. This is perhaps easiest to illustrate with the new project I’ve mentioned. I love music and am always looking for ways to incorporate it into my work, to view something I don’t know about through the lens of something I do. I also want to make more use of the archives and libraries near me. I’m within spitting distance of the Glasgow Women’s Library, which houses one of the best collections of women’s suffrage materials in the UK, and I’ve decided to make the most these materials. So my newest pursuit will start out investigating women’s suffrage, music and Scotland and see if they overlap. Considering all I’ve mentioned so far, I chose to keep my inquiry fairly high level: does music play a role in women’s suffrage in Scotland? I come across far more about women’s suffrage in the United States and there’s ample materials available from the Library of Congress demonstrating how music played a role in this movement. That’s why it’s not unreasonable to think music could have had a role in Scottish women’s suffrage but I know less about the movement in the UK let alone if or how music might have been used in in my adopted homeland to help women get the right to vote. My first step then is to keep it general and not assume anything until I know something.
I’ve only been speaking about assumptions when forming research questions but assumptions can be detrimental at all stages of research. For example, Dariusz Galasiński highlights some of these negative effects in a blog post about research assumptions, criticism and his experiences as an interviewer. Galasiński’s plain-speaking remarks - written about research in an academic context but accessible to most readers - address how assumptions can hinder genuine critical assessment and how they can influence an interview. While my nascent project has a little while to go until I encounter the concerns Galasiński raises about assumptions, I know that engaging, critical research shouldn’t assume anything and we’d all do well to remember that at each step.